Despite my archaeological fascination with death and burial in the Early Middle Ages, only rarely do I get a chance to visit early medieval funerary archaeological sites and monuments with earthworks still visible on the surface. This is for good reason: they are incredibly rare in Britain!
However, I was over in Derbyshire for a brief visit to meet archaeologists and others, and I took the opportunity to revisit Repton. I learned a great deal in doing so, but it relates to the ongoing work of others which I cannot discuss here.
In a rush between meetings, I also got to rapidly revisit the location of a unique site with evidence of Viking cremation practices and burial mounds dated to the late 9th century: Heath Wood, Ingleby, east-south-east of Repton.
Surveyed and dug first in the 19th century (by Thomas Bateman in 1855), then again in the mid-20th century (Clarke and Fraser, 1941-49), the mounds were most recently investigated by Professor Julian D. Richards (University of York) between 1998 and 2000.
Fifty-nine barrows have been identified in Heath Wood. Some covered cremation pyres, with traces of ceremonies in which sacrificed animals were provided as both ‘food offerings’ (cow, sheep, pig) and companions for the dead (horses and dogs). Fragments of rich pyre-goods were recovered – dress accessories and weapons – suggesting the dead would be well-furnished on the pyre as part of a public open-air spectacle. Three fragments of swords have been recovered. Chests might have been placed on pyres: containing further treasures and artefacts, or to contain the dead themselves. The dead might have been transported some distance to reach this spot and in some style!
The mounds were created by digging ring-ditches and deploying material from the ditches in the construction of the mounds. Causeways of subsoil were left across the ditches, allowing single-file access from one or more directions to the mounds during both cremation and post-cremation practices. The mounds were thus originally platforms for cremation ceremonies, with instances of yellow sand used to create a layer upon which the pyre was built.
Some mounds didn’t cover cremation pyres or burials, and their precise function is unclear: did the cremation simply take place elsewhere and only a token deposit was made into the mound?
The mounds seem to have been deliberately turfed to prevent erosion. It remains unclear whether they were also marked or demarcated by posts or flags, or whether the cemetery had a boundary. Still, it is very possible that the surviving mounds are only components of long-lost above-ground funerary architectures in other materials.
Richards (2004) regards the site as the potential war cemetery of the Viking Great Army (micel here) of 873-8, both during its time wintering at Repton and subsequently in its campaigns elsewhere when it divided. The contrast between those inhumed around Repton, and those cremated at Heath Wood, might relate to different groups, of contrasting origins from across Scandinavia, amidst such an exceptionally large fighting force.
The site is therefore special – the only place where one can visit mounds demonstrably covering 9th-century cremation burials associated with Scandinavian armies and perhaps also communities that settled in England in the immediate aftermath of the Great Army’s passage.
The site today is in dense woodland, and it was difficult to spot many of the mounds. Many were completely obscured by dense undergrowth. Also, I had little time to explore all of the areas with mounds. However, this brief revisit reminded me that while each individual mound was modest in size, the landscape location was distinctive. The mounds would have originally been situated on heathland, where the cremation pyres, and the mounds raised over them, would have been prominently positioned with vistas over the Trent valley.
While time was short, I had one key advantage during this visit: University of Chester PhD researcher Brian Costello was with me and made a fabulous scale to help appreciate the size of the mounds we saw. One in particular was free of undergrowth: I think this is the one attributed as Mound 16.
I’m a great fan of the Richards 2004 report for what it reveals about the Heath Wood cemetery, but also because it is (to my knowledge) the only Viking archaeological journal article to prominently cite my 2000 doctoral thesis! I also teach my students about Heath Wood. In all these regards, it was good to go back and see how the mounds are getting on in their woodland context.
Richards, J.D. 2004. Excavations at the Viking barrow cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, Derbyshire, The Antiquaries Journal 84: 23-116.